‘Belle’ Composer Matt Orenstein On The Importance Of Wind In The Film’s Score
It’s a tale as old as time, but with a horror twist.
Level 33 Entertainment’s new film, Belle, reimagines the classic story of Beauty and the Beast, with a darker lens. In the upcoming film, “Belle would do anything to save her ailing father, so she journeys in search of a mythical rose believed to be a cure. As payment for the rose, Belle must surrender herself to a vicious beast and battle his spell.”
Adding another layer of emotion to the characters in Belle is the highly effective score by composer Matt Orenstein. Composers have been known to use unconventional objects to create unique soundscapes in film scores, but an element you don’t often hear about being used is wind. After traveling to the film’s sets in Iceland to record wildlife sounds, Orenstein soon discovered that wind gave the score another level of complexity he had been looking for. The end result is wind flowing through every track used in the film. We dug deeper on this topic and much more in the below interview with Orenstein.
Dread Central: Can you discuss how you got into film composing?
Matt Orenstein: I’ve always been fascinated by the music in movies. So much so that I got the college I went to, Oberlin Conservatory, to OK letting me do a film score as a senior thesis, even though I entered as a bass player. When I moved to Chicago after school, I got a job working at a record store, where I started using my employee discount on horror soundtrack LPs. Later, I found work as a composer for a few theatre and dance companies in the city and did some composing for a couple of shorts. I was also working a lot as a bass player and playing in bands. But the more I thought about it, the more writing music for film seemed enticing. Eventually, I moved to LA to pursue film composing for real.
DC: What has been an essential part of your creative process when working on a horror film’s music like Belle?
MO: The one constant in my process is that I do a lot of listening. What I listen to depends on the project I’m working on. To get in the headspace for Belle, I listened to a lot of more contemporary horror scores (Michael Abels and Mark Korven), Johann Johansson, Bobby Krlic, contemporary classical music, Bjork, Julianna Barwick, the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, and anything director Max Gold and editor Patrick Lawrence thought I should hear. The process was ongoing; we worked on the score for about a year,all remote, all during the height of COVID, and I always had my ears open. The more I heard, the more the score came into focus and became its own thing as I responded to whatever I was listening to.
DC: Belle is based on the classic fairy tale, originally written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. Did you go back and read this version before working on the film?
MO: I didn’t, but I should have. My familiarity with Beauty and Beast was strictly from the Disney version that I grew up with, and the Jean Cocteau film, which I watched in high school. The only reading I did prior to starting work on the score, apart from the several drafts of the screenplay that I read, was the Prose Edda, a kind of Icelandic Norse mythology urtext.
DC: Can you talk about how you approached Belle? How did you decide how dark you wanted the score to be?
MO: The darkness came from the script and from the footage. It was never a question of how dark we wanted the music to be, the question was always how do we convey something that feels specific to Belle. In order to really understand how to score this film, I had to go to Iceland. When Max and I started talking score, he told me there was a quality to it that you can’t understand unless you’ve been there. So I went. I wasn’t on an ethnomusicological mission, I just wanted to get the country in my bones a little bit so maybe I could capture some of that ineffable feeling he was telling me about.
So I visited a few of the shoot locations and did a lot of wandering around by myself. I had an idea that I could record and transcribe wildlife sounds and weave them into the score. But our sound recordist Casey Hartig told me that most of the natural soundscape was wind. So, as I wandered around shoot locations (I tagged along with the cast and crew to Papa’s house, Odr and Freyja’s house, and Beast’s cave), around Reykjavik and Kopavogur, and around guided tours of Iceland, I paid attention to and recorded wind sounds on my iPhone. Nearly every sound I used in the score has some sort of wind sound dialed in. Whether it’s a noise generator, loose bass bow hair, artificial bass harmonics, brass, vocals, whispers, you name it, wind is blowing through the score.
The other thing I noticed in Iceland was how empty and still it could feel. There were times I walked down a street in Reykjavik during the daytime and I’d be the only person there. The stillness was truly wild, especially coming from a place like LA. So the music has a ton of space built into it, too.
DC: Did you give any of the characters specific themes?
MO: Oh yeah. Max, Patrick, and I all talked a lot about the importance of themes when we were working on the score since we felt like having specific melodic themes for characters placed us squarely in fairy tale/folktale territory and that’s where we wanted to be. Belle’s theme is a wordless melody sung by a chorus of female vocals. The idea was to sound like a lullaby or a tune that’s rattling around in Belle’s head. By the end of the film, the theme turns into an elegy, and then into a song of hope.
Beast’s theme is more heroic, but with a tinge of melancholy. His theme is mostly on a Prophet that I ran through the chorus effect like the one Prince used on Purple Rain … Max, Patrick and I are all huge Prince fans (Max and I are from the Twin Cities, so it’s in our blood), and the Kid in Purple Rain has a similarly seductive and mysterious quality to the Beast, so it felt appropriate.
DC: Belle is a horror film mixed with a love story. How did you balance those two very different genres, musically?
MO: I think once we figured out what the movie was supposed to sound like overall, it didn’t take much to balance these two genres since we had a tonal language that could accommodate both. The horror moments are made from the same stuff as the love moments. Musically I’m using the same elements in the love moments as in the horror moments, but in the horror moments, they run totally amok and become something more abject. Even in some of the love moments, there’s a sense of danger, so we allowed horror strains to creep into some places where you wouldn’t normally find them.
DC: How would you say the Belle score evolved from the beginning of the film to the end credits?
MO: The same way the film evolves. On a macro level, it’s paralleling the narrative, and in micro, it’s moving with and shading each character on their respective journeys.
DC: What would you say makes a good horror film score?
MO: I think a good horror film score sets the mood, communicates the film’s subtext, and clues you into what makes the film scary. A great horror does all this in a way that feels unique to the movie. That’s why I love The Witch so much. Mark Korven’s use of period instruments is totally unique, and creates an atmosphere of terror that fits the film’s folk horror perfectly. It’s one of my favorite scores ever and was a big influence on the Belle score.
DC: Would outsiders be surprised by anything in your studio?
MO: Nothing too crazy in my studio. I work in my living room, so my setup is pretty lean and mean. Just a computer, an interface, and a bunch of analog synths. My upright bass lives in my bedroom, and my guitars and electric basses live all over. I think outsiders would be surprised by the number of bathrobes I have, and that I wrote most of the score for Belle while wearing these robes (one at a time).
You can learn more about Matt Orenstein at https://mattorenstein.com/.
Belle is out now on VOD.